Dear Prudence

Family Spies

My mother-in-law found out my baby’s sex against my wishes—and then told everyone.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
During my six-year marriage to an amazing man, I have had a cordial relationship with his mother. I am now pregnant with his family’s first grandchild. My husband and I mutually decided that we didn’t want to know the sex before the birth. My mother-in-law was livid with our decision, even though I tried to placate her by using the obstetrician she suggested and allowing her to attend some of my prenatal appointments. She continued to bring up gender at every opportunity. My doctor’s staff was aware of our decision not to know the baby’s sex, but after one sonogram I was surprised to see my mother-in-law at the office smiling ear to ear. A few days later I had messages from family members congratulating me on the baby girl I was having! My mother-in-law wheedled the information out of the ultrasound technician, who is a friend of hers, then announced it. I threatened the clinic with legal action and found a new doctor mid-pregnancy. My mother-in-law is smug about her tactics and told me nastily that if I “still had a mother,” I wouldn’t be so selfish. (I was orphaned at age 14.) I can’t express how betrayed and hurt I am by this. My husband sides with me and we’ve made a birthing plan that includes her not being permitted in the facility until we’ve been released. We will not inform anyone of the birth until after we’re home, and for the time being, she won’t be welcome to visit. Am I being too vengeful here? How do I overcome this feeling of betrayal?

—Sad Mommy

Dear Sad,
I guess you could consider yourself lucky your mother-in-law didn’t pop out of the closet while you and your husband were trying to conceive, like one of those terrifying mothers in the Old Spice commercials. But how utterly unnerving to have found her lurking at your doctor appointment. After the technician violated your privacy, you were right to have found another practitioner. It should also be comforting that this obstetrician understands your mother-in-law needs to be treated as a security risk. Thank goodness your husband is standing firm with you. Too often, I hear about sons of such mothers who have been trained since childhood to give in to these termagants, and who find it easier even in adulthood to avoid the drama and accede to their demands. Your mother-in-law grew up in an era in which everyone had to wait for the baby to be born in order to find out its sex. So it’s bizarre that she’s obsessed with a piece of information that was to be revealed soon enough. But your mother-in-law has proven herself unable to distinguish between her desires and someone else’s. Given her remark to you about your deceased mother, she is also cruel and insensitive. Your husband should explain to his mother that because of her behavior during your pregnancy you two are on hiatus from her. Say that it would be sad not to have her in your child’s life, but if she wants to enjoy being a grandmother, a basic requirement is that she treat her daughter-in-law with respect. An apology from her and a recognition she needs to do better would be a start. But in the absence of that, after the baby is born and you feel ready, allow her some short visits to see if she seems capable of reform. You’re not being vengeful; she’s the one who has to regain your trust. And don’t let her terrible behavior make you engage in a stealth birth. You and your husband shouldn’t feel that becoming parents is something to keep clandestine.


Dear Prudie,
I have been with my boyfriend for two years and we feel comfortable roughhousing with each other. This consists of trying to slap each other in the face and using scare tactics to see who gets startled the most. Although it is childish, it makes us laugh. Unfortunately, my luck ran out when he tried to block me from hitting him and accidentally hit my jaw instead. That caused my teeth to collide, and chipped my front tooth. I was devastated, as I have always admired my teeth. Now, I feel saddened by this permanent damage. It didn’t help that my boyfriend felt that it was my fault for being a “spaz.” Then my overly critical mother lambasted me instead of being supportive. Am I 100 percent responsible for this accident? Should I be upset with my boyfriend for making me feel that I was being dramatic and useless? Should I avoid ever going to my mother for advice because her first response is to criticize and exacerbate the situation?

—Chipped Tooth

Dear Chipped,
People who enjoy greeting each other at the end of the day by springing out from behind the couch and offering a right hook to the jaw probably should put on protective goggles and pop in a tooth guard before opening the door and calling, “Honey, I’m home!” But even if a couple mutually engages in a Punch and Judy show for fun, when Punch accidentally decks Judy, he should issue a prompt, sincere apology. Then, instead of assigning blame, Judy should acknowledge that this is the kind of thing that happens when two people enjoy messing with each other’s heads. Your mother may not be warm and nurturing, but even the most concerned mother, when presented with this set of facts, might conclude, “An accident was inevitable and you’re lucky your jaw wasn’t broken.” You concede the childishness of your hijinks, and now that you’re facing an expensive tooth repair (which should restore your smile), it’s time to reconsider the way you two get your thrills. But even more childish is the way you’ve each retreated to defensive corners. You have to start thinking about whether not only the game has run its course, but the relationship, too.


Dear Prudence, 
I have a close friend (I’m female, he’s male) since childhood who is loyal, supportive, and funny. We are in our early 30s, and he’s good-looking, charming, and successful. Over the last decade he has developed a pattern with women that I find repulsive. He will start dating one and lavish her with attention. Then after two or three months, when she has fallen in love with him, he’ll react with astonishment when she assumes he’s a real or potential boyfriend. He’ll say he never thought of her as anything but a nice girl and sexual partner. Recently I met a girl who said she became clinically depressed after her affair with him. She thought she had met the love of her life, and then had to go the humiliating route back to her friends and family and tell them the romance was all in her head. When I have confronted him with this, he shrugs and say that the girls are oversensitive, that he never talked about love, and if they had any expectations, that’s their problem. This whole business makes me sad and I am considering distancing myself from him. But he has never been anything but a good friend to me and we go way back. Should I try to reform him? If so, how? Or should I drop him so that I won’t have to meet any more girls weeks away from getting crushed?

—Friend of Callous Seducer

Dear Friend,
It’s lucky that you met this guy before puberty hit, so you’ve been grandfathered into the friend category and have never been a target of his destructive seduction. You know that he is a master manipulator and his farcical denials about oversensitive women are a cover for the thrill he gets when he can devastate and then discard another victim. Sure, he’s with someone for only a few months, they’re adults, and he never mentions love. But he knows the effect of his pantomime. Sometimes whirlwind romances do work out. (My husband and I had one and we’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary this year.) But this story is a good warning about being careful when the seemingly perfect new partner takes over your life. I don’t think you can reform this guy, but you can tell him why you are going to distance yourself. Say you’ve known him too long and too well to believe his professed astonishment at the hurt he causes.


Dear Prudie,
I recently got my genetic profile done by 23andMe, and was a bit shocked to discover I had no Native American blood. I’m just a plain old 100-percent European mutt. My entire life my mother has prided herself that she had Native American heritage from her grandmother, and I’m trying to decide whether to broach the subject with her that it’s just not true. Coupled with the resurgence in the debates centering around a certain Washington football team (I’ll try and stick with Slate’s standards), I’ve seen an uptick in my family of pride and hurt feelings as of late, and wonder if it would be something that needs to be brought up.

—Gene Therapy Needed

Dear Gene,
If you are a Dan Snyder hater—the membership rolls for this club are astronomical—this revelation means you won’t receive the ministrations of his new, much mocked foundation for Native Americans recently created by owner of the Washington NFL team to distract from the controversy about the team’s name. During her Massachusetts senate campaign, there was an imbroglio over Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American heritage. It turned out no one could find any evidence of such ancestry, but Warren decided to stick with her family lore. I think you should take the same tack as far as your mother is concerned. First of all, these genetic tests, as this BBC article points out, provide “more of an indication than an absolute.” The result is convincing enough for you to accept none of your ancestors crossed that Bering Strait land bridge. But I bet you could show your mother enough STRs and SNPs from your shared DNA to fill a teepee, and nothing would persuade her that her grandmother wasn’t part Cherokee. If it makes her happy to think the blood of our land’s earliest inhabitants runs through her veins, there’s no reason to tell her it’s more likely her forebear was a shoemaker from Slough. To be considered a member of an Indian tribe, one must satisfy an increasingly complicated burden of proof. But happily there’s no barrier to entry for those who just want to loathe Dan Snyder.


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